What if I told you that the California Supreme Court has ruled that under certain circumstances, an employee being exposed to lewd conduct in the workplace – including sexual discussions, sexually explicit pictures, and colleagues pantomiming masturbation – is not enough to sustain an actionable sexual harassment claim? In light of the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations within the entertainment industry, this is a good time to revisit Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, a 2006 decision involving sexually charged conduct in the writers’ room for the television show Friends.
Amani Lyle briefly worked as a writers’ assistant for Friends. Prior to being hired, Ms. Lyle was forewarned that Friends dealt with sexual matters and that, as an assistant to the show’s writers, part of her job would be to listen to and transcribe the writers’ sexual jokes and discussions. During her four-month tenure (she was fired based on poor performance), male Friends writers allegedly engaged in activities such as discussions of anal sex, “blow job” stories, and what they would like to do sexually to actresses on the show; gesturing as though engaging in masturbation; altering sayings on an inspirational calendar to read as having sexual meanings (for example, by changing “happiness” to “penis”); and drawing breasts and vaginas on pictures of cheerleaders during writers’ meetings.
Ms. Lyle filed a sexual harassment case against the Friends production company and several of the show’s writers. Her case made it all the way to the California Supreme Court. There, the court held that “[b]ased on the totality of the undisputed circumstances, particularly the fact that the Friends production was a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes, . . . no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that [the conduct at issue] constituted harassment directed as [Ms. Lyle] because of her sex . . .” The court noted that no one involved in the production ever asked Ms. Lyle on a date, sexually propositioned her, demanded sexual favors of her, or physically threatened her. It distinguished from another case affirming a jury award for sexual harassment where employees working in the costume shop of another production “engaged in . . . behavior to make the plaintiff uncomfortable or self-conscious, or to intimidate, ridicule, or insult her.”
Of course, your workplace is likely not a writers’ room for an adult-oriented situation comedy involving sexual themes. The Lyle case should not be seen as giving license for employers to deviate from policies that strictly prohibit sexual harassment.
Also, given the current #MeToo climate and condemnation of sexual harassment and assault within the entertainment industry, one wonders how the facts in the Lyle case would be viewed by courts more than ten years after that case was decided.